Representatives of the Ho-Chunk Nation attended a public hearing in Madison earlier this month to let legislators know that their tribe supports a bill to be introduced in the Assembly.
The group spent the afternoon listening to testimony, from legislators and members of the public, on Assembly Bill 118 (AB118) – which would strengthen protection of burial sites in Wisconsin, including the state’s thousands of effigy mounds. The hearing took place on Oct. 3, before the Assembly Committee on Environment and Forestry.
First to speak was Rep. Amy Loudenbeck (R-Clinton), who chaired the study committee that helped draft AB118. She highlighted the bill’s seven, key provisions.
The first would require sellers to disclose the existence of a burial site on their property if they are aware of it. The measure would increase transparency in the home-buying process, and ensure that prospective buyers know about any sites located on the land.
“There isn’t anything in current law that would require knowledge of a burial mound on your property to be disclosed,” Loudenbeck said. “So we folded that into the existing real-estate disclosure form.”
The second provision would spell out the types of evidence that the Wisconsin Historical Society must consider when deciding whether or not to enter a site into its catalog, and outline the procedure for a landowner to contest that decision.
“This evidentiary list of requirements is a little bit more specific in nature,” Loudenbeck said, “where current law is not as clear.”
The third change would set forth a procedure for removing sites from the Historical Society’s catalog, in the instance that it becomes too damaged or destroyed. According to Loudenbeck, state statues have not been written in a way that currently addresses the issue.
“Current law didn’t really contemplate the de-cataloging – or removal of sites from the catalog,” Loudenbeck said. “So this actually provides clarity in that area.”
The fourth provision would increase the amount of land surrounding a burial site that cannot be disturbed. The area would be doubled, so that it includes all land within ten feet from the site. The previous standard was five.
“This is what’s called the ‘buffer’,” Loudenbeck said, “so you’re not disturbing the land over the site or around site. In current law, it’s basically five feet – or more, if the site conditions warrant. This would be ten feet – or less, if the site conditions warrant. So it’s just a different kind of balance that we thought would be appropriate.”
The fifth change would make members of any federally-recognized tribe eligible to sit on the state’s Burial Sites Preservation Board. Previously, only members of select tribes were eligible to do so.
“For a while there,” Loudenbeck said, “it depended on which tribes were recognized by the state. This would allow for greater consideration of all the federally-recognized tribes.”
The sixth provision would allow the Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Repatriations Committee to make decisions regarding the repatriation of tribal objects and remains recovered from a burial site. Until now, such decisions have usually been left up to the Burial Sites Preservation Board – which consists of many nontribal members.
“The Burial Sites Preservation Board is made up of multiple members,” Loudenbeck said. “And sometimes the decision of what to do with repatriated tribal remains would go to them. But the tribes have asked that, if the remains are strictly tribal, the Wisconsin Inter-Tribal Repatriations Committee or their designee be allowed to make those decisions.”
The final provision would include various changes to the current statute, to clarify discrepancies. Such changes would be the addition of definitions, and clarification of any ambiguous language.
“These are all the technical changes that the committee came up with,” Loudenbeck said, “through the course of comparing administrative roles to the statutes.”
After spelling out the provisions, Loudenbeck expressed satisfaction with the final product and all the work that had been accomplished by her study committee.
Vice Chair Rep. Scott Krug (R-Nekoosa) agreed.
“I really like this Legislative Council bill,” Krug said. “It takes the politics out of discussion, and talks about the policy…So it’s great stuff.”
Other legislators shared the same opinion, including Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie). He said that utilizing the study committee was a great way to go about writing the bill.
“I think some of the best legislation comes from these study groups,” Hebl said. “You get some really good insights. So I appreciate you working with members of the committee.”
Next to speak in favor of AB118 was a representative from the Wisconsin Historical Society, who read a written testimony by Director Ellsworth Brown.
“The final product represents input from multiple groups and individuals from across the state,” Brown wrote, “and has certainly offered and identified areas of improvement. We feel that 118 will improve the program and processes in continuing to protect human burials, while balancing the needs of all interested parties.”
Members of the Ho-Chunk Nation took the floor next. First to talk was Rep. Kathy DeCamp, who spoke on behalf of all tribes in the state.
“The recommended changes in this legislation do not just address Ho-Chunk concerns,” DeCamp said, “but issues that are relevant to all Indian tribes.”
The legislator said that she was pleased with the bill because it aligns with her people’s values. She thanked committee members for considering the proposal and listening to her testimony, before handing things off to Executive Director of Heritage Preservation Jon Greendeer.
The director began speaking in the Ho-Chunk language, impressing many of those in attendance. He then gave an overview of the intergenerational trauma tribes have endured, and announced the Nation’s support of the bill so that future pain and anguish could be prevented.
“The Ho-Chunk Nation supports AB118,” Greendeer said, “because it supports burial sites.”
Others to speak in favor were past and present members of the Wisconsin Archeological Society – including former president Kurt Sampson, board member Rob Nurre, and study committee member William Green.
After hearing everyone’s testimony, Chairman Jeffrey Mursau (R-Crivitz) noted that no party had appeared to testify against AB118.
Having made its way through the preliminary stages of the legislative process, the bill could be introduced on the Assembly floor within the next few months.